Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful SymmetryIt’s been six years since the release of Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, but her second full-length novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, was worth the wait.  It will be released in bookstores on September 29, 2009.

Beginning with a chapter titled “The End,” Her Fearful Symmetry opens with a believable and compassionately revealed death scene.  Despite what seems to be a clear ending for Elspeth Noblin, the character whose traditional life ended that day, it is not the last we hear from this strong-willed woman.

All the regrets and guilts and longings of her life came over her.  No, she thought.  I won’t go.

In her will, Elspeth leaves her London flat, her money, and all her possessions to her identical yet mirrored twin nieces, Julia and Valentina, whom she has never met — the American-born daughters of Elspeth’s own estranged twin.  Julia and Valentina are in the midst of searching for their paths in life, often at odds with each other yet still clinging unnervingly closely to one another.  For better or worse, their unexpected inheritance provides them an opportunity to make a change.

Shortly after their move to London and into Aunt Elspeth’s flat, they become acquainted with their rather eccentric neighbors, developing bonds outside of their tight-knit sisterhood of two.  It appears, however, that Robert (Elpeth’s former lover and a scholar whose area of expertise is nearby Highgate Cemetery) and Martin (the brilliant and gentle-mannered upstairs neighbor who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and can not leave his flat) may not be the only ones in residence in their Highgate apartment building.  The twins begin to find evidence that their Aunt Elspeth may still be among them as well.

Though themes of death, burial, and haunting abound, stretching as far as the title of the book itself with its play on the words “symmetry” and “cemetery,” to call it a mere ghost story would undermine the impact of the novel.  As with The Time Traveler’s Wife, it’s not so much the paranormal premise itself that is the focus of the book as it is the human relationships that unfold amidst, or perhaps even in spite of, the supernatural phenomenon.  As readers, we are able to catch a glimpse into the lives of each individual character, utterly flawed yet still brave and admirable in their own unique ways, as all their most closely guarded secrets are unraveled within the pages of Her Fearful Symmetry.

Audrey Niffenegger has also published two beautifully illustrated novels, The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress.  Niffenegger serves as both writer and illustrator for these two gothic tales.  Reminiscent of Edward Gorey, they feature her artistic aquatint etchings.

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